Budo: An Antidote to Fear
by Robert Wolfe
We are living in unprecedented times. Unless you’re living in a cave somewhere — in which case, you aren’t reading this anyway — you’re bombarded daily with actual news sufficient in itself to induce serious concern as well as outright propaganda from all sides and perspectives that is designed to create unease in the service of an agenda. None of what we’re being subjected to is in our direct control.
But, really, even in “normal” times none of us have any control over very much…outside of ourselves.
One of the best and most accessible means of learning self-control is budo, the traditional martial “Ways” of Japan. The late Okabayashi Shogen, master instructor of Daito-ryu aikijujutsu and Ono-h Itto-ryu kenjutsu (Sokaku-den) and founder of the Hakuho-ryu, put it this way: “It goes without saying that the starting point of budo lies in gaining control of fear. Various methods were born for achieving this purpose. Unless one completely controls fear one will be unable to use and enjoy the techniques because their actions will cause unharmonious, excessive responses…”
“Unharmonious, excessive responses” are also the likely consequence of an inability to control fear in daily life.
Traditional martial arts are not games. The arts are derived from methods of personal combat that were tested in life-and-death struggles, and although modern training is designed to be safe there is an inherent element of danger and risk without which the training would be nothing more than physical exercise. Systematic training will very quickly reveal one’s comfort zones — physically, mentally, and emotionally — and challenge the student to move past existing limitations. Through proper, measured exposure to increasing levels of intensity in combative exchanges with a partner or partners — kumite in karate; randori in judo, jujutsu, or aikido/aikijutsu; kumitachi in kenjutsu — students acclimate to handling calmly activities that might even have been panic-inducing in their lives prior to training.
The ability to deal with simulated combat very directly translates to enhanced ability to deal with everyday stresses and challenges, even when at an exaggerated level such as we’re currently experiencing.
Ralph Lindquist, the Isshinryu karate instructor under whom the Wolfes and Starners trained prior to founding Itten Dojo, had a saying that is also relevant to current circumstances. Lindquist Sensei told us, “If you fight, only three things can happen. You injure the opponent but are not injured. The opponent injures you, but is not injured. Both you and the opponent are injured. Two chances out of three, you are injured, but warriors accept these odds.”
I think the saying is better considered as an example of risk assessment, or even cost-benefit analysis. Both processes are elements of budo, and an enhanced ability to assess and analyze is an expected outcome of training in budo. While we might not find ourselves in the position of having to decide whether the outcome of engaging in physical combat is worth the potential consequences, in the dojo there are choices made in every moment, and as students become more adept at determining their most advantageous focus minute-by-minute they become better able to judge the options available to them in daily life.
If you’re already dealing with stress, you might not think purposely placing yourself in an environment designed to produce measured levels of discomfort is such a great idea. But it is. The dojo is both a laboratory and forge, an ideal arena in which to experiment in a safe and controlled manner, and grow, in ways the uninitiated can’t image while long-time members know have immeasurably improved their lives.
More importantly, the growth, mitigation of fear, and increasing skills and confidence are a tangible source of joy — a substantial antidote to the present day.